Events & Presentations

The Psychology of Evil by Philip Zimbardo (Transcript)

So Milgram asks 40 psychiatrists, “What percent of American citizens would go to the end?” They said only one percent. Because that’s sadistic behavior, and we know, psychiatry knows, only one percent of Americans are sadistic.

Here’s the data. They could not be more wrong. Two thirds go all the way to 450 volts. This was just one study. Milgram did more than 16 studies. And look at this. In study 16, where you see somebody like you go all the way, 90% go all the way. In study five, if you see people rebel, 90% rebel. What about women? Study 13 — no different than men. So Milgram is quantifying evil as the willingness of people to blindly obey authority, to go all the way to 450 volts. And it’s like a dial on human nature. A dial in a sense that you can make almost everybody totally obedient, down to the majority, down to none.

So what are the external parallels? For all research is artificial. What’s the validity in the real world? 912 American citizens committed suicide or were murdered by family and friends in Guyana jungle in 1978, because they were blindly obedient to this guy, their pastor — not their priest — their pastor, Reverend Jim Jones. He persuaded them to commit mass suicide. And so, he’s the modern Lucifer effect, a man of God who becomes the Angel of Death.

Milgram’s study is all about individual authority to control people. Most of the time, we are in institutions, so the Stanford Prison Study is a study of the power of institutions to influence individual behavior. Interestingly, Stanley Milgram and I were in the same high school class in James Monroe in the Bronx, 1954.

So this study, which I did with my graduate students, especially Craig Haney — we also began work with an ad. We didn’t have money, so we had a cheap, little ad, but we wanted college students for a study of prison life. 75 people volunteered, took personality tests. We did interviews. Picked two dozen: the most normal, the most healthy. Randomly assigned them to be prisoner and guard. So on day one, we knew we had good apples. I’m going to put them in a bad situation.

And secondly, we know there’s no difference between the boys who are going to be guards and the boys who are going to be prisoners. The kids who were going to be prisoners, we said, “Wait at home in the dormitories. The study will begin Sunday.” We didn’t tell them that the city police were going to come and do realistic arrests.

[Video Student: A police car pulls up in front, and a cop comes to the front door, and knocks, and says he’s looking for me. So they, right there, you know, they took me out the door, they put my hands against the car. It was a real cop car, it was a real policeman, and there were real neighbors in the street, who didn’t know that this was an experiment. And there was cameras all around and neighbors all around. They put me in the car, then they drove me around Palo Alto. They took me to the police station, the basement of the police station. Then they put me in a cell. I was the first one to be picked up, so they put me in a cell, which was just like a room with a door with bars on it. You could tell it wasn’t a real jail. They locked me in there, in this degrading little outfit. They were taking this experiment too seriously.]

Here are the prisoners who are going to be dehumanized. They’re going to become numbers. Here are the guards with the symbols of power and anonymity. Guards get prisoners to clean the toilet bowls out with their bare hands, to do other humiliating tasks. They strip them naked. They sexually taunt them. They begin to do degrading activities, like having them simulate sodomy. You saw simulating fellatio in soldiers in Abu Ghraib. My guards did it in five days. The stress reaction was so extreme that normal kids we picked because they were healthy had breakdowns within 36 hours. The study ended after six days, because it was out of control. Five kids had emotional breakdowns.

Does it make a difference if warriors go to battle changing their appearance or not? Does it make a difference if they’re anonymous, in how they treat their victims? We know in some cultures, they go to war, they don’t change their appearance. In other cultures, they paint themselves like “Lord of the Flies.” In some, they wear masks. In many, soldiers are anonymous in uniform. So this anthropologist, John Watson, found 23 cultures that had two bits of data. Do they change their appearance? 15. Do they kill, torture, mutilate? 13. If they don’t change their appearance, only one of eight kills, tortures or mutilates. The key is in the red zone. If they change their appearance, 12 of 13 — that’s 90 percent — kill, torture, mutilate. And that’s the power of anonymity.

So what are the seven social processes that grease the slippery slope of evil? Mindlessly taking the first small step. Dehumanization of others. De-individuation of Self. Diffusion of personal responsibility. Blind obedience to authority. Uncritical conformity to group norms. Passive tolerance to evil through inaction or indifference.

And it happens when you’re in a new or unfamiliar situation. Your habitual response patterns don’t work. Your personality and morality are disengaged. “Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing more difficult than understanding him,” Dostoyevksy tells us. Understanding is not excusing. Psychology is not excuse-iology.

So social and psychological research reveals how ordinary, good people can be transformed without the drugs. You don’t need it. You just need the social-psychological processes. Real world parallels? Compare this with this. James Schlesinger — and I’m going to have to end with this — says, “Psychologists have attempted to understand how and why individuals and groups who usually act humanely can sometimes act otherwise in certain circumstances.” That’s the Lucifer effect. And he goes on to say, “The landmark Stanford study provides a cautionary tale for all military operations.” If you give people power without oversight, it’s a prescription for abuse. They knew that, and let that happen.

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By Pangambam S

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